Chevy Laguna, 1973-1976

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The mid 1970s were a weird and dangerous time for the American car industry. It had to turn on a dime – literally – and figure out how to “compete” with Japanese automakers who had no problem dealing with the sudden uptick in gas prices caused by various OPEC oil embargoes because all they sold at the time were small cars. Detroit, meanwhile, still had mostly traditional-sized, body-on-frame behemoths conceived in the ’60s that assumed ’60s’-era conditions would last much longer than they did. Since they couldn’t just throw away the cars they had, they had to figure out a way to make the cars they had work under the new regime.

A prime example of this is the short-lived Laguna series, which ran for just three years between 1973 and 1976.

The Laguna was named after the California race track (Laguna Seca) and was essentially a modified Chevelle with GM’s attractive Colonnade styling defined by a sporty-looking, forward-raked “B” pillar and fixed glass rear quarter-window that fed back into a fastback roofline.

The Colonnade look was actually a clever solution to a very real engineering problem: How to impart sufficient structural strength to a coupe’s roof so as to meet the federal government’s new (but never implemented) roof crush standards.

The Laguna also had a unique front end treatement with one of GM’s first fully integrated front fascias. Instead of the usual bolt-on bumper, the Laguna had a wraparound front clip made of color-matched flexible urethane plastic – GM called it Enduraflex – which integrated most of the formerly separate front-end items into a single unit. This presaged the design ethic that would become industry standard by the late 1980s, when bolt-on chrome bumpers were relics of the automotive past. But in ’73, the “monochromatic” look was highly unusual and the Laguna really stood out.

Inside, Chevy borrowed the Monte Carlo’s swiveling front buckets (bench seats could also be ordered) and boasted nicer materials and trim unique to this model. The gauge cluster was a semi-wraparound design, with all the controls oriented toward the driver.

A sharp-looking center console (with the buckets) canted forward, as if ready for action. And unlike the pony cars, a Laguna’s interior was a rumpus room of open space. Even six-footers could occupy the rear seats – which are mostly unendurable in modern sporty coupes.

V-8 power was standard, too – which put the Laguna a notch above the econo-oriented Malibu (which came standard with an inline six) and just under the still-potent SS Chevelle.

Chevy management probably realized that the SS would soon be gone – and rather than keep the SS name on a gelded Chevelle, turned to the idea of the new Laguna as a kind of euro-themed American GT. It would still be big – and reasonably powerful – but not so over-the-top that survival would be impossible in the era of high-priced unleaded regular and catalytic converters.

The standard engine for ’73 would thus be a 350 two-barrel, offering 145 hp, working with a three-speed manual transmission. Buyers could step up to a four-barrel 350 and 175 hp – along with a 4-speed manual or three-speed Turbohydramatic. A mild-tune 454 4-barrel was the Laguna’s top engine – and when teamed with either the 4-speed manual or the optional three-speed automatic, delivered credible performance with acceptable economy.

It may not have been an LS5 SS 454 Chevelle – but it was close enough to keep the fires burning during a very dark period for the American auto industry.

Indeed, Chevy retired the Chevelle SS the following year, leaving the Laguna – which was now called Laguna S-3 – as the division’s only heavy-hitter. Sedan and wagons versions had been dropped – or rather, transferred back to the regular Malibu lineup.

For the final two years of its short life, the Laguna would be offered as hardtop coupe only.

It was during this period that the car came into its own as a kind of showroom stock stock car. A striking new shovelnose front end treatment (along with the distinctive side louvers for the quarter windows and 15×7 Rally rims) gave it a 150 mph look standing still. It seemed ready for Talladega as it sat – just add window netting and “76” decals on the door. And indeed, the actual stock car versions did very well on the super speedways of NASCAR – until NASCAR outlawed them!

Street versions now carried either a two-barrel 350 or an optional 400 4-barrel developing 180 hp. The 454 was still on the docket, too – though downrated slightly to 230 hp net.

Catastrophic converters – which became standard equipment across the GM lineup for the 1975 model year – meant the end for the 454 and even the 350 got pushed aside in favor of a new 305 small block that shared the 350’s stroke but had a smaller bore. It still managed 140 hp, even so – which was respectable in view of the fact that it had 45 fewer cubic inches than the ’74 model’s 350 two-barrel and also had to exhale through far more restrictive exhaust plumbing. The 400 four-barrel was the range-topper for ’76, managing 180 hp – which was, again, respectable in the context of the times. That year, for example, there was no Z28 Camaro – and the strongest engine you could order in the smaller F-car was a four-barrel 350 making all of 170 hp.

The Laguna was thus an interesting car when it was new and even more so today because you see them so infrequently. The side louvers and shovelnose front end still look custom, not factory – and owners often find themselves giving short history lessons about this unusual car, of which fewer than 20,000 total were ever made.

Laguna facts

* Oddly, while the Laguna’s front end got the integrated, urethane fascia, the rear end still used a conventional bolt-on chrome bumper.

* Two years after the production Laguna was cancelled by Chevrolet, NASCAR outlawed the use of Laguna-bodied stock cars.

* Even though big-bocks were not available from the factory in ’76, the Laguna’s cavernous engine compartment makes dropping one in a snap.

* The famous quarter-window louvers were optional in ’74 but standard thereafter on coupes. A power-activated Skyroof sunroof and Landau vinyl roof were among the car’s major optional extras.

* One of the rarest Laguna variants is the ’73 Laguna wagon with the 454 V-8 engine.

Excerpted from “Road Hogs” (2011) by Eric Peters; see http://www.qbookshop.com/products/147301/9780760337646/Road-Hogs.html

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8 COMMENTS

  1. I have a line on a Laguna that is suppose to have a 350 V-8 and a factory supercharger, have you heard of one ever being built like that?

  2. Hi Joyce,

    I am very interesred in your Laguna. I had one 25 years ago in high school and want one again. I have been looking specifically for a blue Laguna. Please contact me at 309-378-3205 Steve.

  3. Hi Joyce,

    It’s a great car; you’re lucky to have one of these unusual machines. I had a friend back in high school who owned one, but that was in the mid-1980s and I haven’t seen one in years now. The louvered quarter windows looked great – and while the stock engines weren’t as powerful as what you could get in the slightly earlier Chevelles, they had a lot of potential and were easily hopped up – if you wanted to do that.

    On selling it. I’d first see whether there’s a local Chevy/Chevelle club in your area. I am betting there probably is. You should contact them. A member will likely either want to buy your car or know someone who will – and these will be people who know and appreciate the car; who will take good care of it – not some kid who’s gonna put ree-uhms on it and turn it into a pimpmobile.

    Another option is to place an ad in Hemmings Motor News (www.hemmings.com – I think). This is the “bible” of the old car hobby and they publish a massive classified ads section devoted solely to classic/vintage cars like ours.

    Good luck with this – and please keep us posted. If you have other questions, you can post them here or in the Forum (click on the top menu bar “Forum” button).

  4. Hello…

    I have the S-3 Laguna 1976. I don’t know too much about cars but I do know that not many of these were made (around 9200). It is the standard blue with white stripes with the “paneled” side and back windows. I feel pretty sure that a lot of it is original except for the interior upholstery (I had this done) and the back (right side) panel has been restored where a man having some sort of seizure drove into it while it was parked. My beautiful husband was going to restore it, but he was killed 02/08/10. The car is now sitting out in the weather and now has some rust in the floorboard, etc. I want to sell this car just for the simple reason that I can’t stand to look at it because of knowing how much my beloved husband loved it. I know I’ll NEVER do anything with it and I hate to see it just rot. Is there any way that you could help me/guide me on what to do?

    Thank you so much!

    • hi i have owned my 74 laguna S3 for 17 years i use it for my daily driver in the summer it has been a great car it has 140000 miles on it im ex air force mechanic i keep her in tip top shape i have no plans to ever get rid of her it runs great looks great many people ask what is it? it has a 350 4 bar carb its red with white stripes red int i dont let anybody drive it not even my wife it took me quite a while to find an original S3 emblem for the front fender! Ihad a guy offer me mad money just for the grill ofcourse i said no well keep those 70s sleds on the road GOD BLESS!

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